Bebe Miller on Improvisation
By Anne Zuerner
December 7, 2002
Early on Saturday morning, Bebe Miller and I spoke on the phone about modern dance improvisation. I had seen her improvise with David Thomson at St. Mark's Church just the night before, as part of the Improvisation Festival/NY, so my image of her— a strong, wise looking woman, moving thoughtfully, her long thin dread locks splashing around her eyes that seem to have seen years beyond what her body has felt—was clear in my mind. During our conversation, she explained to me that un-choreographed movement has long been a part of her dance life. Her first dance classes, which she began at age four with Murray Louis at the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan's Lower East Side, used improvisation to explore elements of line, energy, and, time in dance. As it was her dance beginning, Miller describes returning to improvisation as getting back in touch with "something that's me," something that feels very basic.
Yet Miller's thoughts on improvisation are anything but basic. Her words are deliberate, revealing her firm grasp of the complex terrain that is improvisation. If I could use one word to describe my impression of Miller, it would be deep. Whether she is dancing, choreographing, improvising, or speaking, Miller pushes herself further and further into her quest to inhabit an idea. She dances not only with her body, but also with her mind. When she is improvising, you can see her thinking, you can see that movement is far beyond a kinesthetic sensation for her. Her inquisitive eyes seem to look both out into space and deep within herself as she creates a philosophy, tells a story, and develops a new language, simply by dancing.
Throughout her choreographic career, which began in 1978, and then later forming her company in 1985, improvisation has fueled her every step. At times she translates improvisations directly into dance material, taking steps from a video of a session, and inserting them into choreography. Other times she sets improvisations "bit by bit." Now, Miller says, context is becoming more and more important to her. In working with her dancers, improvisation has become a tool for discovery within a chosen subject; she says she uses it to "get inside of an idea." For instance, while working on Verge (2001), she was "getting inside of" animal touch. She took her dancers to the zoo to witness the non-human world of physical interaction. On a basic level, she uses improvisation in her company to arrive at "a physical understanding between people."
As a dancer, improvisation is largely about rigor for Miller; she enjoys "working up against a hard place." In order to achieve this intensity, says Miller, one must first be willing, and interested in working through physical problems, not only aching feet, but also asking oneself, "what's happening now? How can I go further? Even when I'm still, how can I go deeper?" She is always searching for a rooted-ness, a connection to the floor that remains even when she leaves the floor. She imagines a "graphic sense" of her body, to avoid getting to stuck in her head, where constructive thinking can easily become negative self-judgement. When she feels herself losing the rigor of the movement, she whips out a surprise, shocking herself back into thoughtful movement. She wants her dancing to go beyond just feeling, beyond indulgence. She explains that the audience can't feel what feels good to you, so by indulging, you separate yourself from your audience. Hers is a quest for balance between the mind and the body.
Miller's Friday night improvisation with David Thomson illustrated her love affair with rigor and her complexity as an artist. The piece was titled "The Conversation" and the two dancers dove deeply into tide of physical exchange.
It's easy to tell that Miller and Thomson have known each other for years when they dance together. They are tender and loving, they almost look like a couple. They move between being serious, and playful easily, throwing in a few verbal comments to spice things up. Despite such ease, Miller told me they had never performed an improvisation together before Friday night.
Miller and Thompson met in 1983 when he auditioned for a piece that Bebe was making. While working together on Miller's choreography, they improvised informally, in the "research tool" sense of the word that Miller is so fond of. Later, while improvising with him at a workshop she realized that she spent so little time dancing with people of her same color. It wasn't that she avoided dancing with other black people, she just never seemed to. Dancing with Thomson, Miller felt that some doors were opened because their racial connection; she knew there were some references they could rely on.
Miller explained to me the structure that the two had laid out before delving into their spontaneous creation. They planned to start facing one another. They planned the first and last piece of music and gave the sound engineer a choice between two pieces for the middle section. The time in between pieces of music as well as all other events in the piece were open. They also developed a "menu" of possible events, such as repeating gestures if they happened to end up in the small space upstage right, next to the altar. They knew that the piece was to be a conversation, but how they were to converse was a source of debate. Thomson came to Miller with images of them talking out of pools of light. Miller said she just wanted to move, and not talk. So they worked for three days, had discussions about how they feel about improvisation as a form, and arrived at the conclusion: They would converse inside the dancing, and yes, they would speak.
Miller admitted happily that she liked what had happened on Friday night. She said that she thankfully didn't take herself too seriously, which she usually does. She said, "It was humanizing."
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